Dreams are for losers
I remember watching this speech by Shonda Rhimes and feeling my brain unveil and embrace the concept of “being” and “doing” over “dreaming”.
DARTMOUTH COMMENCEMENT SPEECH
Delivered June 8, 2014
Hanover, New Hampshire
President Hanlon, faculty, staff, honoured guests, parents, students, families and friends—good morning and congratulations to the Dartmouth graduating class of 2014!
This is weird.
Me giving a speech.
In general, I do not like giving speeches. Giving a speech requires standing in front of large groups of people while they look at you and it also requires talking. I can do the standing part okay. But the “you looking” and the “me talking” . . . I’m NOT a fan. I get this overwhelming feeling of fear. Terror, really.
Dry mouth, heart beats superfast, everything gets a little bit slow motion. Like I might pass out. Or die. Or poop my pants or something. I mean, don’t worry. I’m not going to pass out or die or poop my pants. Mainly because just by telling you it could happen, I have somehow neutralized it as an option. Like as if saying it out loud casts some kind of spell where it cannot possibly happen now.
Vomit. I could vomit. See? Vomiting is now also off the table. Neutralized it. We’re good.
Anyway, the point is, I do not like to give speeches. I’m a writer. I’m a TV writer. I like to write stuff for other people to say. I actually contemplated bringing Ellen Pompeo or Kerry Washington here to say my speech for me . . . but my lawyer pointed out that when you drag someone across state lines against their will, the FBI comes looking for you, so . . .
So I don’t like giving speeches. In general. Because of the fear. And the terror. But this speech? This speech, I really did not want to give. A Dartmouth commencement speech? Dry mouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything in slow motion.
Pass out, die, poop.
Look, it would be fine if this were, like, twenty years ago. If it was back in the day when I graduated from Dartmouth. Twenty-three years ago, I was sitting right where you are now. And I was listening to Elizabeth Dole speak. And she was great. She was calm, she was confident. It was just . . . different. It felt like she was just talking to a group of people. Like a fireside chat with friends. Just Liddy Dole and nine thousand of her friends. Because it was twenty years ago. And she was JUST talking to a group of people. Now? Twenty years later? This is no fireside chat. It’s not just you and me. This speech is filmed and streamed and tweeted and uploaded. NPR has, like, a whole app dedicated to commencement speeches.
A WHOLE SITE JUST ABOUT COMMENCEMENT SPEECHES.
There are other sites that rate them. And mock them. And dissect them. It’s weird. And stressful. And kind of vicious for an introvert perfectionist writer who hates speaking in public in the first place.
When President Hanlon called me—
By the way, I would like to thank President Hanlon for asking me way back in January, thus giving me a full six months of panic and terror to enjoy. When President Hanlon called me, I almost said no. Almost.
Dry mouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything in slow motion. Pass out, die, poop.
But I’m here. I am gonna do it. I’m doing it. You know why?
Because I like a challenge. And because this year I made myself a promise to do the stuff that terrifies me. And because, twenty-plus years ago when I was trudging uphill from the River Cluster through all that snow to get to the Hop for play rehearsal, I never imagined I would one day be HERE. Standing at the Old Pine Lectern. Staring out at all of you. About to throw down on some wisdom for the Dartmouth commencement address. So, you know, moments. Also, I’m here because I really, really wanted to eat some EBAs. Okay.
I want to say right now that every single time someone asked me what I was going to talk about in this speech, I would boldly and confidently say that I had all kinds of wisdom to share.
I was lying.
I feel wildly unqualified to be giving advice. There is no wisdom here. So all I can do is talk about some stuff that could maybe be useful to you. From one Dartmouth grad to another. Some stuff that won’t ever show up in Meredith Grey voice-overs or Papa Pope monologues. Some stuff I probably shouldn’t be telling you here now. Because of the uploading and the streaming and websites. But I am going to pretend that it is twenty years ago. That it is just you and me. That we’re having a fireside chat. Screw the outside world and what they think. I’ve already said the word poop like five times already anyway . . . things are getting real up in here.
Before I talk to you, I want to talk to your parents. Because the other thing about it being twenty years later is that I’m a mother now. So I know some things. Some very different things. I have three girls. I’ve been to the show. You don’t know what that means. But your parents do. You think this day is all about
you. But your parents . . . the people who raised you . . . the people who endured you . . . they potty-trained you, they taught you to read, they survived you as a teenager, they have suffered twenty-one years and not once did they kill you. This day . . . you call it your graduation day. But this day is not about you. This is their day. This is the day they take back their lives, this is the day they earn their freedom. This day is their independence day. Parents, I salute you. And as I have an eight-month-old, I hope to join your ranks of freedom in twenty years!! Okay.
So here it comes. The real-deal part of my speech. Or as you may call it,
Stuff Some Random Alum Who Makes TV Shows Thinks You Should Know Before You Graduate.
You ready? Here we go!
When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure.
Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until your dream comes true. I think that’s crap.
I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, powerful, engaged people? Are busy doing. The dreamers.
They stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they think and they talk about it endlessly. And they start a lot of sentences with “I want to be . . .” or “I wish . . .” “I want to be a writer.” “I wish I could travel around the world.” And they dream of it. The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they all brag about their dreams. The hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate on their dreams. You write in your journal about your dreams. Or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it. You’re planning it. Kind of. You are blue-skying your life. And that is what everyone says you should do. Right? That’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?
Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
LESSON ONE: DITCH THE DREAM. BE A DOER, NOT A DREAMER.
Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just . . . DO. You think, “I wish I could travel”—you sell your crappy car and buy a ticket and go to Bangkok right now. I’m serious. You say, “I want to be a writer”—guess what? A writer is someone who writes every day. Start writing.
Or: You don’t have a job? Get one. ANY JOB. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical dream opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Work.
Do until you can do something else.Shonda Rhimes
I did not dream of being a TV writer. Never, not once when I was here in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, did I say to myself, “Self, I want to write TV.” You know what I wanted to be? I wanted to be Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison. That was my dream. I blue-skyed it like crazy. I dreamed and dreamed. And while I was dreaming, I was living in my sister’s basement. Dreamers often end up living in the basements of relatives, FYI. Anyway, there I was in that basement; I was dreaming of being Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison.
I couldn’t be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn’t interested in giving it up. One day I was sitting in that basement and I read an article in the New York Times that said it was harder to get into USC film school than it was to get into Harvard
Law School. I could dream about being Toni Morrison. Or I could do.
At film school, I discovered an entirely new way of telling stories. A way that suited me. A way that brought me joy. A way that flipped this switch in my brain and changed the way I saw the world.
Years later, I had dinner with Toni Morrison. All she wanted to talk about was Grey’s Anatomy.
That never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped dreaming of becoming her and gotten busy becoming myself.
LESSON TWO: TOMORROW IS GOING TO BE THE WORST DAY EVER
When I graduated from Dartmouth that day in 1991, when I was sitting right where you are and I was staring up at Elizabeth Dole speaking, I will admit that I have no idea what she was saying. Couldn’t even listen to her. Not because I was overwhelmed or emotional or any of that. But because I had a serious hangover. Like, an epic painful hangover because— (And here is where I apologize to President Hanlon because I know you are trying to build a better and more responsible Dartmouth and I applaud you and I admire you and it is VERY necessary . . . ) —I’d been really freaking drunk the night before. And the reason I’d been so drunk the night before, the reason I’d done upside-down margarita shots at Bones Gate, was because I knew that after graduation, I was going to take off my cap and gown, my parents were going to pack my stuff in the car and I was going to go home and probably never come back to Hangover again. And even if I did come back, it wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t be the same because I didn’t live here anymore.
On my graduation day, I was grieving.
My friends were celebrating. They were partying. So excited. So happy. No more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks, yay. And I was like, are you freaking kidding me? You get all the fro-yo you want here! The gym is free. The apartments in Manhattan are smaller than my suite in North Mass. Who cared if there was no place to get my hair done? All my friends were here. I ran my own theater company here. I was grieving. I knew enough about how the world works, about how adulthood plays out, to be grieving. Here’s where I am going to embarrass myself and make you all feel better about yourselves. I literally lay on the floor of my dorm room and cried while my mother packed my room. I refused to help her. Like, refused. Like, hell no I won’t go. I nonviolent-protested leaving here. Like, went limp like a protester only without the chanting—it was really pathetic.
Don’t you feel better?
If none of you lie facedown on a dirty hardwood floor and cry today while your mommy packs up your dorm room, you are already starting your careers out ahead of me. You are winning. But here’s the thing. The thing I really felt like I knew. The real world sucks. And it is scary. College is awesome. You’re special here. You’re in the Ivy League, you are at the pinnacle of your life’s goals at this point—your entire life up until now has been about getting into a great college and then graduating from that college. And now, today, you have done it. Yay!
The moment you get out of college, you think you are going to take the world by storm. All doors will be opened to you. It’s going to be laughter and diamonds and soirees left and right. What really happens is that, to the rest of the world, you are now the bottom of the heap. Maybe an intern. Possibly a low-paid assistant. At best. And it is awful. The real world, it sucked so badly for me. I felt like a loser all the time. And more than a loser? I felt lost.
Which brings me to clarify LESSON NUMBER TWO: Tomorrow IS going to be the worst day ever for you. But don’t be an asshole.
Here’s the thing. Yes, it is hard out there. But hard? Is relative. I come from a middle-class family, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddler during the women’s movement, I live in the United States of America, all of which means I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice and my uterus and I went to Dartmouth and earned an Ivy League degree.
The lint in my navel that accumulated while I gazed at it as I suffered from feeling lost about how hard it was to not feel special after graduation . . . that navel lint was embarrassed for me.
Elsewhere in the world, girls are being harmed simply because they want to get an education. Slavery still exists. Children still die from malnutrition. In this country, we lose more people to handgun violence than any other nation in the world. Sexual assault against women in America is pervasive and disturbing and continues at an alarming rate. So yes, tomorrow may suck for you—as it did for me. But as you stare at the lint in your navel, have some perspective. We are incredibly lucky. We have
been given a gift. An incredible education has been placed before us. We ate all the fro-yo we could get our hands on. We skied. We had EBAs at one a.m. We built bonfires and got frostbite and enjoyed all the free treadmills. We beer-ponged our asses off.
Now it’s time to pay it forward.
Find a cause you love. It’s okay to just pick one. You are going to need to spend a lot of time out in the real world trying to figure out how to stop being a lost loser so one cause is good. But find one. And devote some time every week to it. And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething
Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer, and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones. Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies toward making the world suck less every week. Some people suggest that doing this will increase your sense of well-being. Some say it’s just good karma. I say that it will allow you to remember that, whether you are a legacy or the first in your family to go to college, the air you are breathing right now is rare air. Appreciate it. And don’t be an asshole.
So you’re giving back and you’re out there doing and it’s working. Life is good. You are making it. You’re a success. And it’s exciting and great. At least it is for me. I love my life. I have three TV shows at work and I have three daughters at home. And it’s all amazing. I am truly happy. And people are constantly asking me, how do you do it? And usually, they have this sort of admiring and amazed tone.
Shonda, how do you do it all? Like I’m full of magical magic and wisdom and specialness.
How do you do it all? And I usually just smile and say, “I’m really organized.” Or if I’m feeling slightly kind, I say, “I have a lot of help.” And those things are true. But they also aren’t true.
And this is the thing that I really want to say. To all of you. Not just to the women out there. Although this will matter to you women a great deal as you enter the workforce and try to figure out how to juggle work and family. But it will also matter to the men. Who I think increasingly are also trying to figure out how to juggle work and family. And frankly, if you are not trying to figure it out, men of Dartmouth? You should be. Fatherhood is being redefined at a lightning-fast rate. You don’t want to be a dinosaur.
So women AND men of Dartmouth: as you try to figure out the impossible task of juggling work and family and you hear over and over and over again that you just need a lot of help or you just need to be organized or you just need to try just a little bit harder . . . as a very successful woman, a single mother of three, who constantly gets asked the question “How do you do it all?” For once I am
going to answer that question with 100 percent honesty here for you now.
Because it’s just us.
Because it’s our fireside chat.
Because somebody has to tell you the truth.
Shonda, how do you do it all?
The answer is this: I don’t.
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I’m probably missing bath and storytime at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I am probably blowing off a script I was supposed to rewrite. If I’m accepting a prestigious award, I’m missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy.
If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off.
That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel 100 percent okay, you never get your sea legs, you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing.
And yet. I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they come to Shondaland. There is a land and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work. And I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland, because I get to write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is a better person —and a better mother. Because that woman is happy. That woman is fulfilled. That woman is whole. I wouldn’t want them to know the me that didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.
Lesson NUMBER THREE is that ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU THEY ARE DOING IT ALL PERFECTLY IS A LIAR.
I fear that I have scared you. Or that I have been bleak. That was not my intention. It is my hope that you run out of here excited, leaning forward, into the wind, ready to take the world by storm. That would be so very fabulous. For you to do what everyone expects of you. For you to just go be exactly the
picture of hard-core Dartmouth awesome. My point, I think, is that it is okay if you don’t. My point is that it can be scary to graduate. That you can lie on the hardwood floor of your dorm room and cry while your mom packs up your stuff. That you can have an impossible dream to be Toni Morrison that you have to let go of. That every day you can feel like you might be failing at work or at your home life. That the real world is hard.
You can still wake up every single morning and go, “I have three amazing kids and I have created work that I am proud of and I absolutely love my life and I would not trade it for anyone else’s life ever.”
You can still wake up one day and find yourself living a life you never even imagined dreaming of.
My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard. And I ended up building an empire out of my imagination. So my dreams? Can suck it.
You can wake up one day and find that you are interesting and powerful and engaged. You can wake up one day and find that you are a doer. You can be sitting right where you are now. Looking up at me. Probably—hopefully, I pray for you—hungover. And then twenty years from now, you can wake up and find yourself in the Hanover Inn full of fear and terror because you are going to give the commencement speech.
Heart beats so, so fast.
Everything in slow motion.
Pass out, die, poop.
Which one of you will it be? Which member of the class of 2014 will find themselves standing here at the Old Pine Lectern? I checked and it is pretty rare for an alum to speak here. It’s pretty much me and Robert Frost and Mr. Rogers. Which is CRAZY AWESOME.
Which one of you is going to make it up here? I hope it is you. Yes. You.
No. Seriously. You.
When it happens, you’ll know what it feels like.
Heart beats so, so fast.
Everything in slow motion.
Graduates, every single one of you, be proud of your accomplishments. Make good on your diplomas. Remember, you are no longer students. You are no longer works in progress. You are now citizens of the real world. You have a responsibility to become a person worthy of joining and contributing to society
Who you are today . . . that’s who you are.
And every single time you get the chance?
Stand up in front of people.
Let them see you. Speak. Be heard.
Go ahead and have the dry mouth.
Let your heart beat so, so fast.
Watch everything move in slow motion.
So what. You what?
You pass out, you die, you poop?
(And this is really the only lesson you’ll ever need to know.)
You take it in. You breathe this rare air.
You feel alive. You are yourself.
You are truly finally always yourself.
Thank you. Good luck.
Excerpt from Year of Yes. Buy the book here.
Image Credit – Washingtonpost.com